September 29, 2012
Returned home: Anthony Sujith at home in Thoduwawa. Photo: Ben Doherty
AUSTRALIA – the tiny slice he saw of it, the Cocos Islands and the immigration detention centre at Christmas Island – was heaven, Anthony Sujith says. ”They were very nice to us, the food was very good, warm showers, and good houses to live in. We could play sport and take English lessons, it was like a heaven,” he tells The Saturday Age, sitting outside his concrete bungalow in Thoduwawa, a Catholic fishing village on Sri Lanka’s west coast.
Nauru sounded like hell. ”I was told that Nauru was a cramped place, with no good house to live, and infested with wild animals, like snakes. And they said I would have no job to do there, I could not work to support my family back in Sri Lanka.
”Nobody told us what would happen to us in Nauru, how long we would stay, so we were scared of that place. So I decided to come back.”
Sujith was one of 18 Sri Lankans who returned home last week, having abandoned their asylum claims under the Australian government’s tough new offshore-processing regime. Charter flight ASY-769 touched down at Colombo airport a week ago this morning, bearing 14 Sinhalese, three Tamils and a Muslim. Both the Sri Lankan and Australian governments expect and hope it will be the first of many such returns.
The voluntary return of asylum seekers is being hailed by Australia as proof the new system is working as a deterrent, and it is being promoted in Sri Lanka as evidence that life is good and safe on the island and that those who sought to leave have realised their mistake.
In agreeing to go back, they have given the ”lie to human traffickers’ much-propagated claim that this country is too dangerous for the so-called boat people to be sent back to”, The Island newspaper declared in its editorial.
But the group that chose to return was not representative of the Sri Lankan asylum seekers who have reached Australian shores in record numbers this year (some 3674 so far and with another 2200 stopped trying to leave Sri Lanka).
The 18 returned were mainly Sinhalese, Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority. Australia does not release statistics on ethnicity, but Sri Lankan police chief Ajith Rohana said 90 per cent of the asylum seekers leaving the island were Tamils.
As well, last week’s returnees were concentrated by profession. Most were fishermen, from Sri Lanka’s west coast, where they have been hit hard by declining fish stocks, increased competition from international boats and rising fuel prices.
Sujith, who is Sinhalese, has plied his trade on the island’s west coast his whole life, for ever-diminishing returns. It was economic opportunity that last month drove him to board an ageing, overcrowded trawler bound for Australia.
”The last three years have been very bad. It is too hard to make a living now. There is no fish to catch, I have no job, and I have a family to support. I keep having to borrow money, my life gets worse and worse.”
Burdened by mounting debt, Sujith took one more loan, of 300,000 Sri Lankan rupees – about $A2200, a fortune to his family – for a shot at Australia. ”I am the breadwinner, I want a good life for my family, and for my children to have education. Here in Sri Lanka, I cannot make enough, not enough even to eat.”
Sixteen days in a leaky boat later, he arrived at the Cocos Islands, five kilograms lighter, but with a claim to asylum. He says he was treated ”so well” by Australian authorities, but told that because he arrived after August 13 he would be taken to Nauru. He says his hope for a future in Australia died.
”If I could get to Australia, I know I could make a good life. I could work to support my family. But it was never explained to me about Nauru. I thought I might be stuck there forever with no job.”
His life now, he says, is much worse. ”I am out of the frying pan and into the fire,” he says, breaking momentarily from Sinhalese into English. Sujith, like his fellow returnees, was promised a reintegration package worth about $3300 to agree to return to Sri Lanka.
The details of how much of that will be in cash, and how much will be in in-kind support – help to set up a business, buy new nets or boats or other equipment – is still a matter of contention, or of misunderstanding, between those promising and those promised.
Sujith says he was given 13,000 rupees at the airport, but is worried he won’t see any more. He says he’s been told that because he, for a short time on the 16-day voyage, was given the wheel of the boat, he is being regarded as a crew member, and won’t get any more assistance.
He says he was never part of the crew and, like many others on the boat, was only asked to steer the boat for a short time.
The International Organisation for Migration’s chief of mission in Sri Lanka, Richard Danziger, told The Saturday Age the reintegration package for each returnee was still being worked out between the Australian government and his organisation, which will disburse the government largesse.
”As a rule, we prefer to give in kind, rather than cash,” Danziger said. While there would be a cash element, assisting people into new work was more beneficial in the long term. ”And it is better and cheaper for everyone to have people return voluntarily, to have people agree to go back with a reintegration package, rather than be deported in handcuffs.”
Right now, Sujith says, he has no job, no money, and fears that because he left the country illegally he might become a target for police harassment. His wife, Nona, says she’s barely slept since her husband’s return because she fears he will be taken in the night. ”We are scared now. At night I worry he will be arrested, that he will be taken away by police, we don’t know what will happen to him.”
All of the asylum seekers returned last Saturday were questioned at Colombo airport, some for nearly five hours. Individually, they were interrogated by Sri Lankan immigration officials, uniformed police, and the Criminal Investigation Department over their reasons for going to Australia, their methods for getting there, and their decision to return.
The concern they might face persecution in future is neither imagined nor inflated. In July, The Age revealed that former asylum seekers returned from Australia, or stopped en route to Australia, had been sent back to Sri Lanka to be arbitrarily arrested, detained without trial, and even tortured.
Sinhalese brothers Sumith and Indika Balapuwaduge have spent two years in jail, still without trial, after their political asylum claim was rejected by Australia, while Tamil man Sarath (not his real name) was arrested, hung upside down and beaten with batons by police who alleged he had links with the separatist Tamil Tigers.
Police chief Ajith Rohana denies torture takes place in Sri Lanka, as has the Sri Lankan government.
K. Pokus Fernando, who was on the same flight home as Anthony Sujith, has been hauled in to the local police station twice already for questioning. ”They ask me the same things every time: ‘Why did you go? How much did you pay? Who to? Whose boat was it?’
”I tell them the same answers, I tell them I had no part in organising [the voyage], I was just going to Australia for a better life.”
Fernando says he decided to come home to Sri Lanka after being told he faced three to four years on a Pacific island, with no way of earning an income to support his family. ”In 45 years, I’d never even been inside a police station before,” he says from his beachside concrete bungalow, ”now I am being asked all the time to go down to make a statement.
”It is stopping me from working. I am a fisherman and I have to travel to the north to fish, if the policeman comes to see me at my house and I am not there, then what happens? They will come to find me and arrest me – I am very worried.”
While the emerging narrative from Sri Lanka is one of economic migration, not all Sri Lankans who flee do so for reasons of economy. Many face serious persecution from the army, police and government over matters of politics, family or race.
In nearby Iranawila, 20-year-old Gayan is wary. ”How do I know you’re not from the government?” he asks. Eventually satisfied by assurances and business cards, he relays to The Saturday Age a similar story to the others: he chose Australia because he believed he would find work there, and a chance to ”improve my life and help my family”.
He eventually reached Christmas Island but decided to return immediately when he received word his pregnant wife was ill. While Gayan, too, is burdened by the debts he took on to pay for his passage to Australia, he sees hope in his return. He says he has been promised the $3300 in assistance from Australia via the International Organisation for Migration. Forty-nine per cent of it, he says he’s been told, will come in cash. He will use that to pay off his debts. The rest, he understands, will help to start a business.
”I am very confident they will deliver what they promised.”
He wants to be established in a new job before his baby son arrives in January.
But Gayan says regardless of his return, and that of others, more in his village will still try for Australia. Not for the money they might be gifted for returning – it is usually far outweighed by the fare paid to the people smugglers – but simply for the chance at a new life in Australia.
”The boats will still go. People want to make themselves a success in their life. Why can we not have that chance, just because we are from this country?”